Airbus Helicopters, December 14, 2020 - Canada’s STARS air ambulance service was founded by two physicians – Dr. Greg Powell and Dr. Rob Abernathy – whose personal experience showed them the advantages that aerial transport brought in saving patients’ lives.
With a fleet of 14 helicopters, the company now serves communities in three provinces in western Canada.
“We take the job seriously. The accountability, we think, is massive,” says Andrea Robertson, STARS President and CEO. “We want to make sure that we’re putting the very best hands on our patients, so our operations are really like taking a flying intensive care unit to them.”
“Canada is characterised by vast geographic areas and small populations which might not have access to a hospital, particularly those providing higher-level care,” Robertson continued. “The people of Canada see helicopter EMS as a means of having rapid access to critical care wherever they are.”
STARS can cover such distances effectively, deploying the 11 helicopters in its fleet.
In 2014, the company began looking for an aircraft capable of serving their six bases; they subsequently chose the H145, for a total of nine to be delivered by 2022. “The decision was made to go to a single platform because of safety and economics, particularly in crews’ training needs,” said Robertson.
The company’s missions take them from the Hudson Bay in the north to the Rocky Mountains in the west. “It’s not uncommon for some of our flight profiles to be up to 100 naut. mi. one way – a radius of action in which the H145 shines because of its increased speed,” says STARS pilot John Carson. Based in Calgary, Carson’s work takes him and his co-pilot – plus the medical crew of a nurse and flight paramedic – into the Rockies and beyond.
“Operating on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies, which are prone to warm Chinook winds, can be quite challenging. And operating into them at night is an added challenge,” said Carson. “The H145 cockpit is fabulous on night vision goggles, with fantastic visibility. The 4-axis autopilot serves to decrease pilot workload in certain situations. Increasing situational awareness and safety are the HTAWS (helicopter terrain awareness system) as well as the synthetic vision system. These fantastic pieces of kit shine when we go into our mountain environment.”
“One of the H145’s attributes that we hope not to see is the aircraft’s ability to hold a single-engine service ceiling,” said Carson. “From Calgary, it’s not uncommon for our en route legs to be as high as 10,000 feet. If we lose an engine and the conditions are of an appropriate nature, we can go right over the top in the H145.”
To carry out its work saving lives, STARS has contracts with three provincial governments, under which the company handles medical oversight and is accountable for getting patients to the appropriate level of care. They operate their own dispatch centre, and staff a 24-hour emergency consultation centre. And training is done in-house, too, with experienced pilots like John Carson handling the flight crew’s transition to the new H145s. Paramedics and nurses undergo a different, though equally intensive continuing education programme.
“It’s awe inspiring when you see the professionalism of our team and how seriously they take safety,” added Robertson. “Bringing on a new aircraft is a lot of work. We feel so fortunate to have this great aircraft and it takes a strong group of professionals to do it well and do it safely.